I am an American from New York City who’s lived in Paris since 2005, and I am a tour guide, blogger, travel writer, and photographer. One of the biggest effects of COVID-19 is the loss of tourism in Paris, which is the most visited city in the world. Ninety-five percent of my clients are from the U.S., so my tour business has been at a standstill since March, and I don’t know when Americans will be allowed to enter France again.
My schedule is much more fluid now as I don’t have to be in Paris to give my tours, and I can write my blog and travel articles remotely. A friend of mine invited me to his new home in the Luberon region of Provence in the south of France at the end of July for a week.
For context, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in Europe, from March till June, France had the third-highest transmission rate in the world next to China and Italy. President Macron ordered a strict lockdown for the entire country, which lasted until May 11, when the COVID-19 numbers dramatically shifted downward. By June 22, almost all the restrictions were lifted and life came back to semi-normal.
But I am in a double-risk category for COVID-19 -- I’m over 60 years old and have a medical condition on the high-risk list -- so I am still very careful when I leave the house. I always wear a mask, and it’s now mandatory to wear them in all shops and on public transportation. I only go on buses or metros when I absolutely have to.
My friend’s house in the Luberon is three hours by train, so I was apprehensive about going to a crowded train station and also spending three hours on a train. Luckily, the train station, Gare de Lyon, was not very crowded the day I left, and boarding the train was safe and easy. I was surprised that the train network did not implement socially distanced seating assignments on the train, and there were people sitting directly in front of us and in back of us. Mask-wearing was required by all passengers except children, which made me a little bit more at ease. The snack bar was closed for safety reasons.
My friend's house was in a tiny, rural village with farms and houses, without any commerce except for one restaurant that was closed for the month. The house was sheltered from the houses next to it by dense, high shrubs.
Our usual routine was to visit a nearby village every morning by car for a few hours then come home and make lunch and spend the afternoon by the pool.
In France, the period from the last week in July to the last week of August is when the French take their summer holidays. Almost all the nearby villages are small with narrow streets, and we purposely visited them on days there was a market. Both of these factors would mean there would be lots of people gathering closely. The entrance of the markets had big signs with an illustration of someone wearing a mask where mask-wearing was recommended but not mandatory. Only about half the people and the vendors wore masks, and social distancing was almost non-existent.
Even though I was anxious about the situation, I went with the flow. I figured as long as I was wearing a mask and was cautious and aware, I would be safe. Although the towns we visited certainly had lots of people, it didn’t feel uncomfortable or unmanageable at any time. I was told by a number of locals that the number of summer visitors was significantly lower than usual. They also said that most of the visitors were from France and that the businesses relying on tourism missed the big influx of English and American tourists, who spend more money than the French.
There are many cultural events and festivals during the summer in Provence, but this year many were canceled. However, there was one venue that sponsored an international piano festival that took place in an outdoor arena. My friend bought tickets in advance and we brought a picnic lunch to have on the grounds of the venue before the concert. However, because of COVID-19, the venue did not allow picnicking. We made lemonade out of lemons and had a tailgate party in the parking lot instead. The arena was mindful of social distancing with two empty seats in between each seated person. Although my friends and I had to sit separately, we were relieved the venue enforced the social distancing.
We made most of our meals at home with the produce and products from the food markets we visited. However, we wanted to treat our friends to dinner, so we booked an outdoor table at a restaurant alongside the town square. The tables were spaciously set apart and the wait staff wore masks.
Another day we took a trip to Arles, a small city with Roman roots and where Van Gogh painted some of his most iconic paintings, which you can visit from Avignon. The biggest event of the year in Arles is the Rencontres d'Arles, an international photography festival taking place in venues all over the city, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Unfortunately, the festival was canceled this year, but the organization that hosts it is committed to supporting the artists who were supposed to participate in the exhibition. The highlight event of the festival is Night of the Year, when 40 of the festival’s favorite artists are chosen and given free range to create an image or video which is shown in a loop on several big screens around the city. This year, the presentation is online.
The few adjustments I had to make during my vacation were just a small price to pay for the enormous luxury I had of not only experiencing one of the most beautiful areas of France, but also for the cherished time I had with my friends, who I had not seen since last December.
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